“Ben looks like Beaker from the Muppets on the outside, but then inexplicably like a guy from Prison Break under his clothes,” said Mindy Kaling, the 28-year-old actress who plays Kelly Kapoor on The Office. “I think if I’m going to have a boyfriend who works out, he better be sort of embarrassed about it, like Ben is. Sheepish fitness is the only tolerable kind.”
Ms. Kaling’s boyfriend, the 30-year-old writer Benjamin Nugent, is the author of American Nerd: The Story of My People, which will be published by Scribner in May. He works out every morning at Crunch in Fort Greene, and the timing of his book seems impeccable; the bespectacled Urkel-esque weakling of yore has, of late, become more concerned with free weights than pocket protectors. Daniel Radcliffe, who can seamlessly switch from playing the nerdy Harry Potter to being naked onstage in Equus, vies with cheesecakey High School Musical star Zac Efron as the object of teenage girls’ affection. Steve Carell shocked audiences (and Catherine Keener) in The 40-Year-Old Virgin with his tight abs. New York actor Justin Theroux, currently starring as John Hancock in the ultra-nerdy HBO miniseries John Adams, has flashed his surprisingly ripped torso on Sex and the City and in the Charlie’s Angels sequel, Full Throttle. Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Bruce Banner are all buff nerds of our imaginations. Slightly closer to reality, there’s Conan O’Brien and, some might say, our former governor, who was famous for his 5 a.m. runs through Central Park.
But today’s nerdy beefcake poster boy would have to be Jason from this season of Beauty and the Geek, the CW sleeper hit that attempts to bring this brain-meets-brawn fantasy to fruition by making the aforementioned geeks more self-aware, if not super-pumped. “My face, hair and personality all scream to the world that I’m a geeky guy who sits behind a desk all day long,” Jason wrote in an e-mail. “However, my body screams that I’m a huge gym rat who only thinks about going to clubs and beaches. This usually leads people to believe my head has been ‘superimposed’ on my body.”
It’s not rocket science to understand that it’s paradoxical for someone to be both nerdy and buff. Perhaps no film has captured this tension better than Revenge of the Nerds, which laid bare the scary aggressiveness of the jocks as they tried to assert their dominance over the nerds—who eventually outwit them thanks to their intellectual skills, not their muscle. In his book, Mr. Nugent argues that this film, among others, highlights the ways in which nerds are seen as embodying technology, whereas jocks embody physical strength; nerds govern through reason, jocks through intuition, and so on.
“The pathos of being a nerd is to feel that because you are comfortable with rational thought, you are cut off from the experience of spontaneous feelings, of romance, of nonrational connection to other people,” Mr. Nugent writes in American Nerd. “A nerd is so often self-loathing because he accepts the thinking/feeling rift, and he knows and cares that other people accept it, too.” So in our popular culture, the male nerd has historically been not only an object of scorn and ridicule from other men, but has been unable to love. That’s why a show like Beauty and the Geek works; it’s unexpected not only for a beautiful woman to be attracted to a nerd, but also for the nerd to be attracted to the beautiful woman.
The buff nerd, however, is a kind of double agent, existing as he (and it is always he; female nerds can be “buff,” but that makes for a sexy librarian/Tina Fey kind of paradigm) does with his geeky exterior and chiseled interior, as Ms. Kaling noted, approvingly, about Mr. Nugent. Indeed, women often see these men as the best of both worlds. Jessica, a 26-year-old writer in Boerum Hill, recalled one college-era ex-boyfriend as a “skinny-jeans-wearing, seemingly emaciated art-school dude.” But he was not, in fact, emaciated. “I was shocked when his shirt came off to reveal washboard abs. I think it was sort of a response to being a total fucking geek in high school and getting picked on a lot.”
Hipster or Ripster?
Meanwhile, editorial assistants, aspiring literary agents and freelance writers crowd the streets of Williamsburg and Carroll Gardens, galley of All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen (who also happens to be a buff nerd) tucked under their arms, Black Lips on their iPods, each one a more underfed mash-up of Elvis Costello, Chuck Klosterman and Stephen Malkmus than the next and trying, ever so valiantly, to appropriate the nerd aesthetic so that they may be Taken Seriously, and not be caught sneaking into the Cobble Hill New York Sports Club or the Greenpoint Y or Absolute Power on Grand Street in Williamsburg.
These are what Gary Shteyngart, in his 2003 novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, disparagingly called “glamorous nerds”: “They were a savvy-looking bunch, clothed in the new Glamorous Nerd look that was fast becoming a part of the downtown lexicon. One specimen in a tight, square, wide-collared polka-dotted shirt was shouting above the rest: ‘Did you hear? Safi got a European Community grant to study leeks in Prava.’ … Vladimir looked on sadly. Not only had he spent his entire life without winning a single European Community grant, but every pathetic piece of clothing he had been trying to shed since emigrating was now prêt-à-porter bonanza!”
These aren’t the gym rats of that 1977 Arnold Schwarzenegger documentary Pumping Iron, though today, some of them are secretly taking their cues from Men’s Fitness instead of n+1. In an e-mail to The Observer, Mr. Shteyngart noted that the “glam nerds” have “appropriated everything we real nerds ever had, but they look good too. Classic imperialism.”
(In a 2006 satirical essay, the former Village Voice writer Nick Sylvester chronicled these “ripsters”: “[R]ipsterism went dormant in the early naughts when post-graduates realized they could subsist on art-gallery cheese and still remain feeble chic. But when news spread that the double shot of eating Gouda and smoking cloves would accelerate heart failure, ex-ripsters switched back to veggies and bread—and weight gain. … How do you know if a ripster’s a ripster? Admittedly things are tricky, since the degree to which a ripster’s a ripster is the degree to which his ripsterdom remains elusive (i.e., ripped). Not to get all Jeff Foxworthy here, but you know you’ve spotted a ripster when the guy next to you at the gym is wearing a pair of expensive running shoes with the air cushions popped so they look worn in and a tank top that says something like “I lost my sleeves in Iraq.”)
“I think there are certain traits associated with being someone who exercises that don’t fit with the general esteem of slackerness that goes with the literary world,” a 28-year-old magazine editor told The Observer. “You don’t want to be seen as trying too hard or being vain or being someone who cares about what they look like. Because of the exertion and effort, it implies caring too much in a way that isn’t cool.”
“Isn’t the whole point of being a hipster taking pride in your Grover body?” asked a 32-year-old guy who lives in Greenpoint. “Or feigning pride, at least.”
Indeed, several of the literary world denizens contacted by The Observer demurred when asked to speak about their workout habits. “I like going to the gym and am totally embarrassed by the fact that I go to the gym, and sometimes lie about it,” said one, before refusing to be quoted in this article.
“I do not feel that there is any way to not come out looking like a total douche bag,” said another.
“I’m formerly secretly buff. Then I had a kid, and no longer can get to the gym five days a week,” said yet another. “Anyway, I definitely don’t want to be in your piece.”
“It’s contrary to the whole enterprise to be quoted in The Observer talking about how fit you are,” said Mr. Nugent, who lives in Clinton Hill. “That makes you, like, the hugest hedge-fund douche bag, like, ever.” (After Mr. Nugent ate lunch with The Observer, he e-mailed to clarify that he “would never apply the term ‘buff’” to himself.)
The only way for the buff nerd to participate publicly in physical fitness is in some sort of vaguely ironic organized sports effort, like the weekly football game in Prospect Park played by an assortment of Brooklyn literary types. Also acceptable: kickball, dodgeball (particularly at free McCarren Pool indie rock concerts), croquet, pétanque, bocce, ping-pong, four-square or potato sack races. But to take any of these games too seriously is to reveal one’s latent competitiveness, which is seemingly at odds with the values of this cohort; those are jock values!
“I went to one kickball game in McCarren Park, and one of my own teammates knocked me down while we were both playing outfield, and he didn’t trust me to get the ball,” said a 36-year-old freelance writer, who lives in Williamsburg.
Buff, and Proud?
Luke Stiles, a 33-year-old director of technology at MTV, seems to think all of these equivocations are hypocritical. Mr. Stiles, who wears oversize silver-framed “nerd” glasses and is called, barely facetiously, “the macrobiotic bodybuilder” by friends, took up cycling in college and now works out regularly at a midtown New York Sports Club near his Times Square office. (“It’s clean, etc., etc., but it’s a shitty scene.”) “I’ve been accused of all that business but I’m not too worried about that shit,” he said. “My favorite is people who clearly work out but are like, ‘Oh, I don’t do anything.’ Men or women, but I think it’s more prominent in men. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I just naturally have these pecs.’
“My experience with real intellectuals—like honest-to-goodness Ph.D.’s—they don’t give a shit,” Mr. Stiles concluded.
There’s also more than a little bit of intellectualization that goes into working out for many buff nerds, an approach to exercise that resembles nothing if not a lab report. Hypothesis: Even a nerd can become buff. Materials and Methods: Weights, running, push-ups, pull-ups. Repeat as needed. Results: Six-pack, muscled pecs. “On the first interview with Beauty and the Geek, I explained that being a true gym rat involved applying biology to real life, everything from amino acid synthesis to cellular respiration,” said Jason, from the show.
“When I’m running in the rain, Rocky-like, from Clinton Hill to the Fort Greene Crunch, I have to come up with these sort of really strange literary rationalizations for what I’m doing,” said Mr. Nugent. “It’s like, if I allow myself to be depressed and angry, I won’t put my best foot forward in my writing, so this is therapeutic, like it’s enabling me to drain myself of some sort of selfish depressive emotion.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all and I stop thinking it, but it’s necessary to get me through that five- to 10-minute run to the gym every morning.”
The 28-year-old magazine editor feels similarly. “I enjoy exercising for all of the mid-’70s-craze, endorphin-type stuff. I buy that. If I go for a week without exercising, I feel anxious and nervous. It’s kind of an addiction,” he said.
That being said, most of the workout nerds are also painfully aware of the consequences of working out too much. “You don’t want to be one of those guys,” said the magazine editor. “You don’t want to wind up with the thick neck, like the bridge-and-tunnel guys you would see in the Flatiron district. I’m self-conscious enough about it where I intentionally try not to bulk up.
“You don’t want to be the guy in the gym with the 200-pound bench-press guy,” the editor continued. “Not just because those guys are generally assholes, but doing that kind of workout is going to make you look like one of those assholes. It’s maybe embarrassing to admit that degree of self-consciousness about it, but even in college I tailored my workouts to look like the guy who looks fit but doesn’t spend too much time in the gym.”
Indeed, there is something about the gym, in particular, that seems to raise the ire of the literary set. Their cri de coeur is a 2004 n+1 essay “The Fit and the Dead,” by Mark Greif, one of the magazine’s editors. “In the gym people engage in the kind of biological self-regulation that usually occurs in the private realm. … Exercisers make the faces associated with pain, with orgasm, with the sort of exertion that would call others to their immediate aid. … They appear in tight but shapeless Lycra costumes that reveal the shape of the penis, the labia, the mashed and bandaged breasts, all without allowing the lure of sex.” The gym, then, becomes a grotesque locale, a literal exercise in futility.
But for those who work out, going to the gym can be rationalized as a necessary evil, a means to an end. The same determination that allows nerds to excel at building their own computers is also at work here. “I just think it’s something pretty shitty to do,” said Mr. Stiles, who recently started going to the gym more regularly in order to get in better shape for cycling. “Saying ‘Oh, I’m gonna go to the gym for an hour today’ is boring. I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have that additional motivation. I see people who just go in and they’re standing there and just going through the motions. I’m pretty sure they’re not training for a marathon. There’s no kind of end product! But they’re also not doing it with any intensity, which is a secondary effect of endorphins.” Mr. Stiles paused and laughed, almost sheepishly, as if to acknowledge the inherent nerdiness of his statement. “That is baffling to me.”
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